Before and After the Trek

I was supposed to fly out to Lima, via Miami, on 2 May 2008; but a change to American Airlines timetable a month before I was due to travel meant there was not enough time for the transfer at Miami airport so I needed to leave London the day before and stop over in Miami for a night. I contacted Explore!, organisers of the trip, to find out where I was staying and they assured me someone would meet me, and the rest of the party, at Miami airport and transfer us to the hotel. Meanwhile I decided to brave Terminal 5 at Heathrow and fly from Manchester with BA on 30 April as BMI Baby did not have a suitable flight for my return journey. This is what I took.

30 April/1 May/2 May
My flight to London, baggage recovery, hotel transfers and flight to Miami all went smoothly, though I didn't meet any of the other members of the party. I joined the queues at Miami Immigration just as they decided to open some of the resident's checkpoints to anyone. It still took me an hour and 15 minutes to get through and I was duly fingerprinted and photographed. I was waved through customs and into the main airport to look for my contact. Thirty minutes later I was no further forward and was trying to get my mobile phone to find a network, something it refused to do, to call Explore!'s emergency help line. It was at this moment that a group came through the gate with a couple of Explore! bags on their trolleys. They were my missing party members who'd been held up in immigration longer than I. One of them had been told they had to find their own way to the hotel, which ran a shuttle bus from the airport, so the hotel was phoned and a bus collected us shortly afterwards. The hotel was going through a change of ownership, had major renovations going on, and had not received our reservations from Explore! They did have some, just not ours. They had rooms for us so we agreed to pay by credit card and claim the money back later. This was not Explore!'s greatest hour! (In all honesty I had been away with them twice before and had no problems, and one trip with one of their major competitors had been a total disaster - I wasn't booked on the outward flight, I was rebooked on the wrong return flight, the guide wanted to do the whole trek at record pace ruining the trip, and I ended up with £750 on my credit cards to get me on my flights which the company took six weeks to refund, and only after I sent them a letter threatening legal action.) In fact the hotel sorted out the bills with Explore! so the cost never appeared on my credit card.

We went off to the South Beach for a look around and a meal. We stopped at one of the many restaurants and looked at the menu. One thing caught my eye - toasted dolphin sandwich. We discussed this amongst ourselves and decided it couldn't mean real dolphin, it would be like eating Flipper, it must be some sort of substitute. Our waitress disabused us of that idea. It was real dolphin. "Some people like it", she told us, "but I couldn't eat it." We decided we couldn't eat it either. I had a soft-shelled crab sandwich so huge I couldn't even eat half of it. We returned to our hotel and I had a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed.

Our flight to Lima was unremarkable. We met our tour leader there and were transported to our hotel. It was late and we all retired to bed.

3 May
Our flight to Cusco was early in the morning and after settling into yet another hotel we assembled for our first taste of coca tea. "It helps ward off AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness)", said our tour leader. Imagine making an infusion from the grass cuttings from your lawn after they have dried for a few days. That's what coca tea tastes like. Some people got to like it. For me one cup was enough. Our tour leader was more talkative by now. He was not an Explore! employee, had been commandeered onto this trip by his sub-contracted employers. He didn't want to do it and he was determined it was the last such trip he would do. He asked me what training I'd done for the trek and when I started to tell him he said quite bluntly that I was underprepared. He also told me quite peremptorily that space for 270 photos on my camera's memory card was not enough and that I needed another. I already had another but by then wasn't prepared to mollify him. We were about to meet our guide of whom I hoped for better things.

Our guide was very different from our tour leader. He was enthusiastic about our tour, knowledgeable about Peruvian history, and articulate in English. He took us on a city tour that afternoon. We walked from the hotel to the nearby Plaza de Armas, the main square of Cusco. On one side stands the Cathedral (photo), on an adjacent side the Jesuit church of La Compañia (photo), and next to that the Jesuit university and the Natural History Museum (photo). We went down an alleyway by the Jesuit church, known as Loreto, where an Inca wall, originally part of the Acllahuasi it had been used as the base of a Spanish building (photo). The absence of mortar and the seamless fitting of the stones betrayed its importance to the Incas. The stones were of a regular size and it was a very even construction. Further on we came to the church of San Domingo (photo) which was built upon an ancient Inca temple called the Qoricancha (Golden Courtyard). It was built by the Inca Pachacutec as a reflection of his future empire which appeared to him in a dream. Parts of the Qoricancha are still within the confines of the church the Spaniards built upon it (photo). There is a fine view across the city from the church (photo).

Our guide took us to another Inca wall, part of Hatunrumiyoc, also mortarless and seamless but with stones of varying shape and size, built like some vast jigsaw puzzle (photo). In this geologically active area this construction improves the wall's earthquake resistance. Nearby, there is a famous so-called twelve-side stone (photo) built into the wall, though the twelve sides are only in two dimensions. There would be more if the third dimension was considered.

This was a trekking holiday, and we were in Cusco for four days to help with our acclimatisation to altitude, the city being at 3,300 metres elevation. But we also had lots of walking to do so we soon found ourselves climbing up to higher levels of the city, easing our leg muscles into the task gradually. There was a fine panorama of the city and its surrounding mountains when we reached our highest point of the day photo. On the way back down we passed through a market where there was an array of vegetables for sale, many of which I'd never seen or heard of (photo).

That evening we went out for a meal to a traditional Peruvian restaurant where we were treated to a traditional Peruvian band and dancers. Not all the music was Peruvian, however. At one point we suffered an awful rendition of Mozart's Turkish rondo. As a group the twelve of us were starting to get along each other, and with our guide. The trip was starting to show promise.

4 May
We set off by bus the following morning for the Sacred Valley. It was considered sacred by the Incas because on the ground it mirrored the path of the Milky Way in the sky. This is a geologically active area and there is a fault running right through the Sacred Valley (photo). Our first stop was to see that fault at the surface, which at first sight looks like a deep ravine cut by water action. It must be a popular stopping place as there were several locals, dressed in traditional costume and with some of their animals (llamas and/or alpacas) selling souvenirs (photo). I came to realise during the trip that the traditional costumes here are everyday wear and not just put on for special occasions.

Our next stop was above Pisac in the Sacred Valley (photo). There is a small modern town in the valley here, but the Incas lived on the higher slopes. We were driven part of the way up then walked up past well-preserved Inca terraces (photo) to the sacred buildings above. Utility buildings we passed on the way (photo) were not built with the precision of the walls we had seen in Cusco, the Incas used mortar for less important buildings. Above the terraces we saw the water channels they has used to irrigate their crops (photo). They had the technology to build long aqueducts where necessary. High up on the mountainside where the priests lived we saw the high-quality mortarless walls again, and as we walked down the other side there was a mixture of building types, constructed as the Incas saw fit (photo). The scenery was impressive, too, with some remarkable rock strata on an adjacent mountain (photo). We walked down into the town where the Sunday market was in full swing (photo). Most of our party had something to eat, whether from market traders, the baker's shop or a restaurant. Our bus was waiting in the car park and we continued our trip along the Sacred Valley to Qenqo.

Qenqo was a sinister religious site where ritual sacrifices were carried out on a stone altar (photo). The victims were bled from the femoral vein, had their brains removed from their skulls, may have been disembowelled and were wrapped and placed in the foetal position. The dry climate and the cold of the night mummified these bodies.

We continued to the fortress of Saqsaywaman, site of the Incas final battle against the conquistadors. The fortress had served them well until that last battle. It was a striking sight from our diagonal approach (photo) but even more impressive when seen face on (photo). The Incas revered rocky outcrops, one of which we passed where local children were using it as a slide (photo). Perhaps in years to come archaeologists will wonder how it was worn so smooth. The individual walls of the fortress are most imposing (photo). Moving these limestone blocks, some estimated at over 100 tons, from their quarries was no mean achievement. We walked back down into Cusco and later went out for a meal. Tomorrow we would return to the Sacred Valley.

5 May
On this morning's trip into the Sacred Valley we stopped briefly, not to see a geological fault but another of the Incas' sacred mountains, Salkantay (photo). It does look a spectacular sight with its pointed snow-capped peak. Our next stop was at Moray (rhymes with assai). Moray was effectively the Incas' agricultural research station. It took advantage of some funnel-shaped depressions to simulate growth conditions over a wide range of elevations in a series of circular terraces. This is the largest viewed from the rim (photo) and from within the basin (photo). There are smaller secondary basins such as this (photo). These sites are still considered magical places by some and a local shaman was conducting a private ceremony at the bottom of the main basin while we were there. It is thought that here the Incas were able to develop varieties of plants that would thrive at elevations where they had previously failed. The Incas flourished initially because of their agricultural expertise. When Chanka warriors almost took their capital, Cusco, the Incas learned how to wage war and so latterly extended their empire.

Our next stop was at the saltpans of Maras. Here springs of warm water, saturated with salt, are channelled into a myriad of small pools where the water evaporates and the salt can be collected. From a distance they look like the elements of an insect's compound eye, or the facets of a butterfly's wing. The bus dropped us above the saltpans (photo) and we walked down to (photo) and through them and then to a restaurant where we had a buffet lunch.

From here we were driven to Ollantaytambo which contains religious, astronomical, administrative and urban complexes. Firstly we were invited into one of the local houses where we were greeted by family members and their future dinners (photo) in the main room of the house. Then we visited the main terraces (photo) and wound our way up to the Temple of the Sun which comprised six enormous blocks of pink granite. The sun was in the wrong place for most of the photographs I wanted to take but we looked across from the Temple of the Sun to Pinkuylluna (photo).

It was on these trips that I'd come to realise that I was one of the weaker walkers amongst this group. There were two very fit young women who strode out in front, chatting to each other, and a sub-three hour marathon runner who could stick with them, plus a skiing fanatic, plus a fit young couple. The two things I had in my favour were that I knew how to pace myself to get the best from my feeble old frame, and that I don't compete against other walkers, only against the terrain.

When we got back to the hotel we collected for the trek briefing from our guide. He told us it was a tough trek, that we would be averaging 20 kilometres per day and there were some high passes and deep valleys en route. He warned us that an earlier group had tried to break records, and while they had managed to do so one the first three days most of them were riding mules by the end. He also gave good advice on what we should take with us and what we should leave behind in storage at the hotel.

We had no big meal planned for evening, having eaten our fill at lunch time so some of us set off for a cafe, Trotamundos, we had taken to. It is in an upstairs room by the Plaza de Armas facing the Cathedral. It was full so our tour leader took us off to another cafe in the square. It was a disappointment, scruffy and almost empty. When a bottle of white wine was ordered a waiter was sent off to buy it from a local shop. He came back with a bottle of red and started opening it before bringing it to the table. This was rejected and he went off again for a bottle of white with a slap around the head. My cappuccino tasted funny but then Spanish cappuccino never tastes like Italian. The following day was a free day and some of us planned to go white-water rafting on (or in) the Urubamba River.

6 May
That night I was desperately cold in bed, even when wearing microfleece, swimming trunks, hiking socks and gloves. Then I got diarrhoea. I remembered that cappuccino! When I got up the next morning I felt slightly better but I backed out of the white-water rafting. Can you imagine...???

I went to Trotamundos and ate most of a fruit breakfast comprising a dish of fresh fruit with granola, honey and yoghurt, fruit juce (papaya) and black tea. Then I spent the day visiting various museums, Contemporary Art, Popular Art and Regional History and the Pachacutec Monument (photo) which you can climb to the top. I returned to Trotamundos for some coffee and lemon meringue pie but they wwere too rich and my stomach rebelled. That was a shame as it was good coffee and good pie. I avoided being sick but only just. When the others returned from their white-water rafting they went out for an Italian meal. I went to bed. In the event that was just as well.

7 - 15 May

16 May
I had a fruit breakfast in Trotomundos, which was up to their usual excellent standards, and went in search of bookshops to find a suitable book about the places we'd visited. After a lot of searching I purchased Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas, ISBN 9786034509214, which I think is excellent but appears unavailable in the UK. It is available at for $45+ second hand. I paid 55 soles, about 10. I then paid a visit to the Inca Museum which has some excellent displays of artefacts and, of particular interest to me, scale models of the Choquequirao and Machu Picchu sites of around 8 x 6 feet in plan. It cost 10 soles, less than 2, and was worth every centimo. I spent about an hour and three quarters in there, then did some shopping for presents.

That evening we went out to an Italian restaurant where I had a most enjoyable swordfish steak, twice the thickness I've ever had before. We had invited our guide along for a free meal as an extra thank you. His knowledge of Inca customs and the trail had made a major contribution to our enjoyment of the trip.

17 May
The following day we left Cusco airport to fly to Lima and transferred to our hotel in Miraflores. It was a foggy day, which apparently is very common in Lima. We walked down to the seafront, to a restaurant specialising in ceviche, raw fish marinated in lemon or lime juice with onions, chilli and other ingredients of choice. I ordered sea bass and got a huge helping of about three times as much sea bass as I've ever had in England. It was the first time I'd ever eaten uncooked fish, Kendal isn't known for its sushi bars, and I would definitely like to try it again.

18/19 May
We all got morning calls at 2:00 am (8:00 am BST) as our flights for Miami left at about 6:00. I got back to Manchester at about 2:30 pm the following day. Driving back to Kendal on the M6 I had a rear tyre blow out after having some debris flung across in front of me from the inside lane. My car doesn't have a spare wheel, just an aerosol to plug a puncture with foam. It wouldn't work with a three inch gash though. I called the AA who took almost an hour to get to me, but the AA man stuck my car on the back of his truck and took me home to Kendal. I'd expected to be home at about 4:30 but arrived at 6:00 so it was no great inconvenience. I was grateful as it could have been so much worse.

It was a fascinating trip, for the local culture, the Inca culture and the fabulous Andean peaks. The one thing I missed was bagging a peak. I'm going to try to make up for that on my next trip, in August, again with Explore!.

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Rev. 3 June 2008

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